Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

RA poster

I went to the Royal Academy of Arts a few days ago to see their exhibition “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse” and it was really wonderful.

I’d never been to the RA before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was expecting beauty though, because of Monet. I’ve long loved the artist, as many others do, for his sublime nymphéas, or waterlillies. Some years ago, at college, I did a class presentation on him. Afterwards, my art teacher snootily told me he was simply ‘a biscuit tin artist’, which I thought then, and still think, does the man a great injustice.

A big fan of Impressionist and Post- Impressionist artists, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris might just be my favourite art gallery of all and boasts a number of his pieces. However, it is the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens that is home to a smaller collection of works from the movement as well as Monet’s most spectacular creations. Two adjoining white oval-shaped rooms display 8 panels of Monet’s post war masterpieces, completed as his vision began to dramatically deteriorate. I saw the lavender and burning yellow of dusk, the billowing clouds of a summer’s day perfectly reflected in a flood of blue and the sombre and secretive weeping willows trailing the surface of the water. All about me the heavens and earth were blurring with total ease and I felt as though I was seeing the world, briefly, through Monet’s adept and discerning eyes.

Fast forwarding several years, I was offered the same delightful transportation. The exhibition was fantastic. I don’t know much about horticulture, or even flowers, (the only plants I am able to keep alive, much to my green-fingered grandma’s distress, are cacti) but I saw so many intriguing variations, some familiar and others entirely foreign. Rendered magnificently in oils were tulips, peonies, narcissus, sweet peas, Spanish irises, cactus dahlias, chrysanthemums, rose hips, Persian lilac and crab apples among countless others. I loved seeing where invention and science met with vision and creativity. ‘Cultivating’ seems an act of both studied technique and innate ability, of intuition and passion as much as patient understanding and practice.

Gardens have always been of importance to us. Biblical doctrine asserts that it was in a garden where mankind first began. Gardens were a significant presence in ancient times, from the hugely influential original Persian garden, to the fruit orchards of the Egyptians or the ornamental and spiritual garden spaces of Rome. Today, national parks and botanical gardens are a staple of most cities- offering us moments of tranquility and a touchstone with nature amidst the urban jungle of concrete and brick. This connection was of great important in the 19th century, when the rapidly modernising and industrious climate as well as the rising middle class meant that flowers and gardens were seen as a fashionable and essential luxury, coveted and enjoyed by many. Horticulture became a movement in itself, something not only admired for its obvious aesthetic allure but also for the health, moral and educational benefits it supposedly provided.

There were so many stand out pieces… Edvard Munch‘s Apple Tree in the Garden, Joaquin Sorolla‘s Louis Comfort Tiffany, Gustave Caillebotte‘s Nasturtiums, Pierre Bonnard‘s Resting in the Garden come to mind. I only spotted one piece by Klimt and one by Van Gogh, which was a shame. I absolutely loved the room ‘Gardens of Silence’, home to a number of ‘quiet, poetic visions of private paradise’ and works ‘imbued with a dream-like ambience’. It was here I discovered the wonderful Santiago Rusiñol, a Catalan painter who focused on representing the grand and abandoned properties of Andalucía’s ancien régime, and the still and melancholy beauty of works by Henri Le Sidaner.

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The last two rooms were dedicated exclusively to Monet! I wandered around the first one, taking it all in; the verdant weeping willows and the moody indigo blue of most compositions speaking to Monet’s great sadness at the ongoing tragedy of the First World War. All of a sudden the ghost of Debussy’s Arabesque No.1, perhaps my favourite classical composition, randomly popped into my head and kept playing as I admired all the pieces. The second and final room displayed three enormous panels that took me right back to the Orangerie, and I was submerged once more in both sky and water. The three sections of the The Agapanthus Triptych (1916-19) had been brought together for the first time (in England) offering a 4 metre x 2 metre window into Monet’s love affair with his garden at Giverny. As the Guardian’s art critic Laura Cumming observes: “There is no up or down, no end to the beauty of these constellations of colour in liquid space and air. Monet’s garden is beautiful beyond measure: his field of vision is limitless.” (Her review of the exhibition is absolutely wonderful!) How true. After a moment or two, I pressed the final number into the audioguide and suddenly Debussy’s Arabesque was actually playing. 3o seconds of those achingly beautiful chords accompanied my viewing before the narration for this final piece, the perfect conclusion to the whole exhibition, began. It was a lovely moment. (Later I would learn that works such as Monet’s inspired music such as Debussy’s- Impressionism in art giving rise to the same evocative and suggestive quality of music belonging to the Impressionist musical movement.)

The exhibition closes in just 2 days! However, there are also cinema screenings of the event nationwide from the 12th April and worldwide from the 12th May. It might not be the same experience, but falling in love with art doesn’t just occur in galleries- a postcard, print or poster can do it, so why not the screen?

RA - monet painint in his garden

Renoir, Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil (1873)



One thought on “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

  1. A stunning exhibition and your coverage make one yearn to see both this and the paintings in l’Orangerie.


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